The demonstration was staged to object to the sale of the government-owned empty homes to developers, with the protesters demanding the units instead be leased to the local authority for use as social housing.
The houses were 28 former prison officers’ flats on Roman Way, on the doorstep of Pentonville Prison in Islington, some of which have lain empty for decades.
At 9am on Saturday morning (26 August), two hard hat-wearing protestors from campaign group Homes for All scaled the 1930s buildings with a ladder, setting up camp in one of them.
Around 15 other protestors from groups including Homes for All and Extinction Rebellion surrounded the buildings, brandishing banners. Within an hour at least 10 police officers had descended on the scene although no arrests were made.
In 2019, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) backed out of ‘‘decades’ of discussions to lease the three and four-bedroom Pentonville flats to Islington Council.
Most of the flats had reportedly been empty for 27 years, but a ‘handful’ were occupied until 2018. Islington Council wanted to convert the empty housing into 50 per cent affordable homes for families in the borough.
According to the Islington Gazette, talks broke down after the MoJ instructed its officials to make more money from the flats. An MoJ spokesperson insisted it was ‘considering a range of options to guarantee the best deal for the taxpayer’.
Earlier this year, a City Matters report revealed the MoJ had spent more than £600,000 paying council tax on the empty homes. In 2022-2023 alone, it forked out £146,000 for the 28 flats, paid at a triple rate designed to penalise owners of homes that have sat empty for more than 10 years.
In 2020, the planning inspectorate dismissed an MoJ appeal to develop the homes, after the local authority threw out several applications from developer LGP Wellington Mews for a ‘certificate of lawfulness’ that would have let it develop the flats without full planning application.
‘The homes could be a beacon for retrofitting’
Without the certificate, 50 per cent of the homes would need to be affordable, as per the council’s planning policy for developments of more than 10 units.
Earlier this year, Islington’s arm of Homes for All and Islington Council deputy leader Diarmaid Ward wrote to the MoJ, urging it to reconsider its 2019 decision on the flats, which it says are ‘structurally sound’ and ‘could be a beacon for retrofitting’.
Speaking to the AJ at the protest, Morag Gillie, a former council housing officer turned Homes for All campaigner, called the empty housing ‘a disgrace’.
She said: ‘Developers want to build 100 per cent private flats here [while] there are hundreds of thousands of people languishing in temporary accommodation.’
Islington Council has a waiting list of more than 15,000 households needing to access social housing.
Gillie says the flats ‘could be renovated, retrofitted, and [used to] get local families off the waiting list back into the local community.
She added: ‘We don’t want private developers coming in. That will just gentrify the area or push working-class people out of the area, which is already happening through temporary accommodation because there is no council housing. We want everybody to have access to council housing.’
An MoJ spokesperson said: ‘An application to turn the site into new housing was turned down by Islington Borough Council in 2021, so we are continuing to look for the best way to use the property.’
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